He is willowy when people yearn for solid, reed-like where they hope for substantial, a bright older brother when they want Papa, cool where they probably prefer warmth. All of which may or may not hurt Barack Obama in time. Lincoln was rawboned, prone to the blues and freakishly tall, with a new-grown beard that refused to become an assertion and remained, for four years, a mere and constant follicular attempt. And he did OK.
Such impressions—coolness, slightness—can come to matter only if they capture or express some larger or more meaningful truth. At the moment they connect, for me, to something insubstantial and weightless in the administration’s economic pronouncements and policies. The president seems everywhere and nowhere, not fully focused on the matters at hand. He’s trying to keep up with the news cycle with less and less to say. “I am angry” about AIG’s bonuses. The administration seems buffeted, ad hoc. Policy seems makeshift, provisional. James K. Galbraith captures some of this in The Washington Monthly: “The president has an economic program. But there is, so far, no clear statement of the thinking behind the program.”
This in part is why the teleprompter trope is taking off. Mr. Obama uses it more than previous presidents. No one would care about this or much notice it as long as he showed competence, and the promise of success. Reagan, if memory serves, once took his cards out of his suit and began to read them at a welcoming ceremony, only to realize a minute or so in that they were last week’s cards from last week’s ceremony. He caught himself and made a joke of it. One was reminded of this the other day when Mr. Obama’s speech got mixed up with the Irish prime minister’s. Things happen. But the teleprompter trope has taken off: Why does he always have to depend on that thing?
There is a new Web site where the teleprompter shares its thoughts in a breathless White House diary. It’s bummed that it has to work a news conference next week instead of watching “American Idol,” it resents being dragged to L.A. in Air Force One’s cargo hold “with the more common electronic equipment.” It also Twitters: “We are in California! One of the interns gave my panels a quick scrub and I’m ready to prompt for the day.” And: “Waiting for my boss’s jokes to get loaded for Leno!”
The fact is that Mr. Obama only has two jobs, but they’re huge. The first is to pull us out of an economic death spiral—to save the banks, get them lending, fix the mortgage mess, address unemployment, forestall inflation. TARP, TALF, financial oversight and regulation of Wall Street—all of this is enormously complex, involving questions of scale, emphasis and direction. All else—windmills, green technology, remaking health care—is secondary. The economy is the domestic issue now, and for the next three years at least.
So one wonders why, say, the president does not step in and insist on staffing the top level of his Treasury Department, where besieged Secretary Tim Geithner struggles without deputies through his 15-hour days. Might AIG and the bonus scandals have been stopped or discovered sooner if Treasury had someone to answer the phones? Leadership is needed here. Not talkership, leadership.
Mr. Obama’s second job is America’s safety at home and in the world. Dick Cheney this week warned again of future terrorism and said Mr. Obama’s actions have left us “less safe.” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs reacted with disdain. Mr. Cheney is part of a “Republican cabal.” “I guess Rush Limbaugh was busy.” This was cheap.
A journalist, watching, said, “They are like two people fighting over a torn bag of flour.” It may be hard cleaning it up.
Mr. Cheney’s remarks, presented in a cable interview, looked political and were received as partisan. The fact is he was wrong and right, wrong in that a subject so grave demands a well documented and thoughtful address. It’s hard to see how it helps to present crucial arguments in a cable interview and in a way that can be discounted as partisan. Nor does it help to appear to be laying the groundwork for a deadly argument: Bush kept us safe, Obama won’t. It is fair— and necessary—to say what the new administration is doing wrong, and to attempt to correct it, through data and argument. The Bush administration made a great point of saying, when they were explaining what U.S. intelligence is up against, that the challenges are constant and we only have to be wrong once, fail once, for the consequences to be deeply painful. What the Bush administration was doing, in part, was admitting that they might be in charge when something happened. The key was to do remain focused and vigilant. This is still true.
But Mr. Cheney was, is, right in the most important, and dreadful, way. We live in the age of weapons of mass destruction, and each day more people and groups come closer to getting and deploying them. “Man has never developed a weapon he didn’t eventually use,” said Reagan, without cards, worrying aloud in the Oval Office.
What can be used will be used. We are a target. Something bad is going to happen—don’t we all know this? Are we having another failure of imagination?
A month ago former FBI director Robert Mueller, in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, warned of Mumbai-type terrorist activity, saying a similar attack could happen in a U.S. city. He spoke of the threat of homegrown terrorists who are “radicalized,” “indoctrinated” and recruited for jihad. Mumbai should “reinvigorate” U.S. intelligence efforts. The threat is not only from al Qaeda but “less well known groups.” This had the hard sound of truth.
Contrast it with the new secretary of homeland security, Janet Napolitano, who, in her first speech and testimony to congress, the same week as Mr. Mueller’s remarks, did not mention the word terrorism once. This week in an interview with Der Spiegel, she was pressed: “Does Islamist terrorism suddenly no longer pose a threat to your country?” Her reply: “I presume there is always a threat from terrorism.” It’s true she didn’t use the word terrorism in her speech, but she did refer to “man-caused” disasters. “This is perhaps only a nuance, but it demonstrates that we want to move away from the politics of fear.”
Ah. Well this is only a nuance, but her use of language is a man-caused disaster.
Our enemies are criminals, and criminals calculate. It is possible they are calculating thusly: America is in deep economic crisis and has a new, untested president. Why not move now?
Mr. Obama likes to say presidents can do more than one thing at a time, but in fact modern presidents are lucky to do one thing at a time, never mind two. Great forces are arrayed against them.
These are the two great issues, the economic crisis and our safety. In the face of them, what strikes one is the weightlessness of the Obama administration, the jumping from issue to issue and venue to venue from day to day. Isaiah Berlin famously suggested a leader is a fox or a hedgehog. The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing. In political leadership the hedgehog has certain significant advantages, focus and clarity of vision among them. Most presidents are one or the other. So far Mr. Obama seems neither.